Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is the most important etiologic agent of non-A, non-B hepatitis and is a major cause of chronic liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma. Development of an effective vaccine would be the most practical method for prevention of the infection, but whether infection with HCV elicits protective immunity in the host is unclear. Neutralization of HCV in vitro was attempted with plasma of a chronically infected patient, and the residual infectivity was evaluated by inoculation of eight seronegative chimpanzees. The source of HCV was plasma obtained from a patient during the acute phase of posttransfusion non-A, non-B hepatitis, which had previously been titered for infectivity in chimpanzees. Neutralization was achieved with plasma obtained from the same patient 2 yr after the onset of primary infection but not with plasma obtained 11 yr later, although both plasmas contained antibodies against nonstructural and structural (including envelope) HCV proteins. Analysis of sequential viral isolates from the same patient revealed significant genetic divergence as early as 2 yr after infection. However, the HCV recovered from the patient 2 yr after the infection had a striking sequence similarity with the HCV recovered from one of the chimpanzees inoculated with the acute-phase virus, suggesting that the progenitor of the new strain was already present 2 yr earlier. This evidence, together with the different sequences of HCV recovered from the chimpanzees that received the same inoculum, confirms that HCV is present in vivo as a quasispecies. These results provide experimental evidence in vivo that HCV infection elicits a neutralizing antibody response in humans but suggest that such antibodies are isolate-specific. This result raises concerns for the development of a broadly reactive vaccine against HCV
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